Classic Cinema: Fiddler on the Roof (1971) - Reviewed

Courtesy of MGM
After goofing on Russia with the 1966 Best Picture nominated comedy The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming, Canadian producer-director Norman Jewison and his coproducer Walter Mirisch set their sights on a more serious look at the country with the immensely popular 1964 stage musical Fiddler on the Roof.  

Based on the a series of stories known as Tevye (or Tevye the Dairyman) and his Daughters by Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem adapted by playwright Joseph Stein with music and lyrics by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, the period musical concerns early 20th century Imperial Russia and centers on impoverished but happy Yiddish milkman Tevye, a staunchly traditional man struggling with the difficulties of raising his daughters who are caught up in their own romances and potential marriages, all the while the Russian government begins expelling the Russian-Jewish residents from their homes.

Told in two acts split by an intermission, the three-hour Fiddler on the Roof begins in 1905 and zeroes in on Tevye (Chaim Topol) living in the Ukrainian village of Anatevka who regards his Pale of Settlement of Imperial Russia to be like a “fiddler on the roof” or a traditional Yiddish person’s way of finding pleasant harmony through longstanding traditions.  Encountering Bolshevik revolutionary Perchik (Paul Michael Glaser) who begins tutoring Tevye’s daughters, news arises of the Tsar expelling Jews from their village homes.  

All the while Tevye following tradition in its footsteps tries to arrange for his oldest daughter Tzeitel (Rosalind Harris) to marry a crusty but well-to-do elder named Lazer Wolf (bearded Paul Mann) against her wishes, not knowing her heart lies with the poor tailor Motel Kamzoil (Leonard Frey).  All the while his daughters are sorting out their marital wishes with their traditional father, Tsarist troops are preparing a pogrom that threatens the lives of the happy villagers.
A stage theater favorite commandeered for years by The Producers actor Zero Mostel in a role that initially controversially but ultimately for the film’s benefit went to the late Israeli actor Chaim Topol, Fiddler on the Roof as Norman Jewison’s first musical is a star-studded widescreen epic that became the biggest box office moneymaker of 1971.  As with Jewison’s later American-Italian romantic comedy Moonstruck, the musical is entrenched in culture, small-talk, interpersonal banter, distinctive cultural traditions and a splendid mixture of comedy and drama.  

Much of the film’s power lies on the shoulders of Topol who makes Tevye from a caricature into a full-blooded living breathing person onscreen who is instantly unforgettable the moment he first begins speaking his lines.  Highly funny when it doesn’t dip into heavy historical dramatic fiction, Fiddler on the Roof is an ornate in-depth look at the lives of simple people trying to find love in a way that threatens to break traditions.
Shot on location in Yugoslavia and Croatia with interior scenes shot in Pinewood Studios in Panavision by Oliver! Cinematographer Oswald Harris, the film’s breathtaking look of natural locations and interior set pieces transports you the viewer back into another place and time long since lost to age.  The play itself is rendered and conducted for the film by none other than Star Wars composer John Williams who makes Jerry Bock’s music sound epic and sweeping on the screen.  

The cast including then-late actress Norma Crane as Tevye’s wife Golde is splendid with the 50-year-old Tevye played by a then-only 35-year-old Topol is splendid across the board.  Special attention also goes to a very young Paul Michael Glaser who would go on to both play Starsky in Starsky and Hutch but would later direct Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Running Man.
Released theatrically in 1971, the film became a major hit and garnered several Academy Award nominations as winning three for Best Cinematography, Best Music and Best Sound.  As an American film dramatizing a pivotal moment in Russian history, the film joins David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago and Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers as a snapshot of life in the country at a time when drastic changes and tragedies were befalling the country.  

Considered by many to be among the most powerfully emotional musical films ever made with believably authentic characters painting a portrait of a way of life long since bygone, the film helped cement Norman Jewison’s reputation as one of the best film directors of the 1970s and Israeli actor Chaim Topol as one of the silver screen’s most colorful performers.  Seen now it remains as timelessly charming, intimate and profoundly moving as it was when it first appeared before audiences fifty years ago, a film about some of the magnificence found in life’s simplest and sometimes most meager offerings. 

--Andrew Kotwicki